Article written by Jon Friedman, acting Wildlife unit Supervisor, Cape of Good Hope SPCA
From parrots to pythons; why exotic pets are a bad idea
Exotic animal: ‘a species that is not an indigenous species in South Africa’ – The National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 (NEMBA).
Each year many thousands of animals are plucked from their homes in the wild to live out their lives in cages, tanks, terrariums and boxes as exotic “pets” in the world of humans.
If you’ve stepped into a pet shop that sells live animals, visited a zoo or “animal park” that houses animals from different parts of the world, or yourself have bought or bred any sort of animal other than most breeds of domestic cat and dog, chances are that you have witnessed, supported or participated in, the multi-billion rand industry that is the trade in exotic animals.
You may think that the Indian ringneck parrot you bought is entirely legal (after all it came from a nice pet shop in a popular shopping mall where the sales guy assured you it was captive bred and that they only source animals from “reputable breeders”), when in actual fact the origins of the parrot (or its parents), would tell a different story entirely.
It would tell the story of how exotic animals are finding themselves trapped, bred and shipped around the world (both legally and then less so), to provide for a booming demand for unusual animals.
The rise of specialist trade shows and social media, content and video-sharing sites like Instagram and YouTube and the ease of shopping, and selling, the world online (especially on platforms like Facebook that offer relative anonymity if you really want it), have helped fuel a global appetite for exotic animals you might have once only expected to see in a zoo, where the rarer the animal is, the higher the price it will fetch, and the greater the lengths that a buyer will take to acquire one.
While it’s mostly a murky world, not all exotic animal trade is done by hooded villains in dark alleyways.
There is a very public (and profitable) exotic animal industry that is above-board and legal. Hundreds of species are being bred, crated, boxed, packaged and shipped around the world daily to private and public collections on permit – for use in medical research – to top the menus of fancy restaurants, for keeping as pets or for their body parts (furs, skins, bones or organs).
For the most part, the legal trade in exotic species is highly regulated and controlled.
A Global Concern
Global organisations like UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), WWF, Four Paws and others have participated in putting together and ratifying rafts of laws and conventions like CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), in an effort to keep control of and regulate the trade in exotic animals across international borders but the reality is that for every legal transaction that takes place, several thousand will slip by undocumented and undercover, especially when the poaching of charismatic megafauna (species like elephants and rhinoceros) dominate the conservation media headlines, the trade in animals like snakes and lizards slithers by mostly unnoticed.
The Humane Society of The United States lists the illegal trade in animals (and plants) as the world’s third largest illegal activity next to arms smuggling and the illegal drug trade.
South Africa routinely lags in its implementation of conservation-oriented treaties such as CITES which in turn is linked to poor control of all wildlife trading and the decline in the protection and conservation of our natural heritage.
Each year, the SPCA witnesses dozens of cases where exotic animals acquired illegally are confiscated by the authorities due to the owners’ lack of the requisite permits to keep the animals.
The Western Cape is currently experiencing an environmental crime crisis even though it enacts some of the strictest legislation when it comes to the keeping of exotic animals, requiring that owners, breeders and sellers maintain permits to keep, breed and transport most exotic species within its borders, with some species that are allowed in other provinces being banned here entirely.
The Nature Conservation Ordinance 19 of 1974 considers that it is the statutory responsibility of CapeNature, the South African Police Service and the National Prosecuting Authority to enforce these laws and to prosecute offences committed – a responsibility that cannot be ignored.
Once an exotic animal is confiscated or surrendered, it usually does not end well for the animal.
Unless there is an accredited, legal sanctuary where that animal can go to under strict conditions (such as where it will not be displayed to the public or used for further breeding purposes), it will need to be humanely destroyed.
In an ideal world, confiscated exotic animals will be sent back to their countries of origin for release back into the wild where they (or their parents or grandparents) originally came from. For highly endangered species this can be the case but where a species is listed as being “of least concern” by CITES (i.e. having little or no conservation value because it is a common species), compassion would rather that the animal be put to sleep than the option of it being condemned to captivity for the rest of its life.
The SPCA Wildlife Departments’ motto of “Wild Animals Belong In The Wild” epitomises this viewpoint.
Most exported South African species 2022:
- Aloe ferox (442, 502 plants)
- Short fin mako shark (246, 052)
- Nile crocodile (107, 031)
- Fischer’s lovebird (102, 311)
- Yellow-collared lovebird (46, 718)
(source: Cites.org Trade View)
Even with that in mind, for every one unwanted exotic pet that is handed into a rehabilitation centre, zoo or the SPCA, as many as three will be released illegally into the wild; into environments either totally inhospitable and foreign to that animal in which it cannot survive for more than a few days, or into foreign environments that suit it all too well, where food is abundant and the climate is perfect, leading to the very real threat of that species establishing itself (at the expense of indigenous species it will eventually displace) and “taking over”, becoming what is known as an “alien invader.”
The list of exotic animals that started out as pets or farmed animals and can now be classified as alien invaders due to their relative occurrence in the South African wild include the red-eared terrapin (or slider), mallard duck, common water monitor, Jackson’s chameleon, European pond turtle, Burmese python, rose-ringed parakeet, feral pigeon, common peacock and the Himalayan tahr.
In 2018, the country’s first report on alien invader species (released by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, SANBI) estimated that alien invaders were costing the South African government R6.5 billion a year to manage.
With the addition of at least seven new exotic species entering our ecosystems either accidentally or illegally every year, the threat they pose to our indigenous wildlife is not to be under-estimated.
Unchecked, the arrival of exotic animals in our natural ecosystems (mostly as unwanted pets), paves the way for worsening the effect of climate disasters while directly posing a threat to human health (e.g. COVID-19).
And the flow of animals and plants goes both ways.
Many of our indigenous species are highly sought after abroad with ruthless smugglers taking full advantage of our porous borders and corrupt customs officials to smuggle species out of the country unhindered where they fetch exorbitant amounts in the pet trade or are used for breeding where the offspring can be sold as “captive bred” and therefore escape some of the permitting checks and requirements.
The legal trade is no less well-supported with South Africa being the world’s largest exporter of live wild animals to Asia.
One only has to look at how the demand for African grey parrots as pets has decimated the population of wild African greys to the point of near extinction.
Greater public awareness of the harm being caused by the exotic wildlife trade can help to reduce demand for the most trafficked species while increasing support for the initiatives and organisations that are placed to prevent the trade from taking place.
To put it in perspective, the illegal trade in our reptile species (for example), should be no less important an issue to address than the smuggling of ivory and rhino horn.